Masons once hoped to build a huge complex in northwest DC

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On July 15, 1922, thousands of men and women (but mostly men) gathered around an old oak tree on a miraculously undeveloped plot of land at Connecticut and Florida Avenues NW. They were Freemasons with their wives and had a bold plan in mind. They swore to build one of the largest Masonic complexes in the country on nine acres of woods north of Dupont Circle. It was called the Dean tract and included the Treaty Oak, which some have said once housed george washington.

If you have ever been to this area, you will have noticed that there is no Masonic complex. Instead, there’s the Washington Hilton. To Chris Ruli, a historian and Mason who researches the Masonic history of the district, this is a story of what might have been. Washington is full – or rather empty – of similar grand edifices that were planned but never built.

Masons didn’t think small in the 1920s. One of today’s speakers said the world – “sadly broken and groping” – needed Freemasonry to help rebuild civilization. But first, they had some construction to do.

The pressing problem at the time, Ruli said, was that local masons had outgrown their existing headquarters. Built in 1908 at the corner of 13th Street and New York Avenue NW, the building served as something of a clubhouse for Mason-related events. There were nearly 20,000 Masons in Washington, and the city was flooded with their clubs: Masons who worked in the White House, or the Treasury, or as steelworkers or in other jobs.

“They needed a place where all these people could meet and congregate,” Ruli said. “Instead of buying an old building, they thought, ‘Let’s build something new.'”

The Dean tract belonged to the Woman’s National Foundation, which had planned to set up its own headquarters there. Prior to this, city leaders had hoped to purchase the land for use as a park. It was the masons who got it, at a cost of $900,000. In no time, local masons raised a million dollars for the project.

The ceremony on that July day, a century ago, marked the Masons receiving the deed to the tract, which they soon dubbed Temple Heights. The committee in charge of the construction of a Masonic temple considered various projects there before settling on a par Harvey W. Corbettthe architect responsible for the slowly rising George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria.

For Tower Heights, Corbett envisioned a set of buildings for use by different Masonic groups, including the Order of the Eastern Star, the Shriners, and the York and Scottish Rites. Only white masons would use the facilities. No Prince Hall Masons – the order founded in 1784 for black Masons – were invited to participate, Ruli said.

Corbett appealed to the artist and architect Hugh Ferris to create dramatic illustrations of his design. Wrote Ruli in an article for Voice of Freemasonry magazine: “In his designs, the Corbett-Ferriss complex towered over the District of Columbia like a modern Acropolis, and large halls surrounded a giant temple of Grant Lodge with dramatic floodlights illuminating the hill like a beacon to visit the masons.

It was a dark temple, a comic book concoction that included sweeping flights of stairs and an observation deck that took advantage of the site’s already lofty elevation. It would have offered great views of the city.

But there was a problem: the design ignored the city’s strict height restrictions. The Masons were well-connected in government and they urged Congress to give a waiver to the design. Plans will also need to be approved by the Fine Arts Commission and the National Parks and Planning Commission.

Although the Masons would eventually get their design approved, with some modifications, in October 1929 something else came into play.

“The stock market crash effectively fixed everything,” Ruli said.

A Masonic hilltop compound seemed like an unnecessary luxury in an age when the focus was on helping fellow Masons survive the cratering economy. The members decided to be content with their building on 13th Street, as old and crowded as it might have been.

“Basically acquiring Temple Heights took away any interest in the fraternity building new things or building big things,” Ruli said.

In 1947, the Masons sold the old Dean tract to a syndicate of developers for $915,000. They kept their building on 13th Street until 1982, when, in a hurry for cash, they sold it to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Although the large Masonic complex never saw the light of day, it lives on in the name of something at 1921 Florida Ave. NW: Temple Heights Post Office.

If the Masons had succeeded, Washington would be different today.

“It would certainly have left an indelible mark on the horizon,” Ruli said. “When you come to DCA you see this big, tall Masonic tower in Alexandria. Imagine entering the District and seeing another tall Masonic tower.

It would have served as a symbol of the fraternal organization, whose very name and rituals are based on the stone construction.

“They wanted to find the highest point and build the highest temple,” Ruli said. “They wanted to make people believe, ‘This is the progress of brotherhood.’ One of the ironies is that if they had built this huge complex for themselves, I don’t think they could have kept it.

The cost of maintaining it would have exceeded the cost of building it.

Next week: Frank Lloyd Wright paused in Temple Heights.

About Ethel Nester

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